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THE LIBRARY OF BABEL (La biblioteca de Babel)
by Jorge Luis Borges, 1944

Jorge Luis Borges's standing as one of the greatest and most influential writers in the history of the short story seems assured. At least a half dozen of his stories are widely and frequently anthologized and appear destined to survive the test of time. Perhaps the most famous of these is "The Library of Babel" ("La biblioteca de Babel"), which was collected in Ficciones (1944).

"The Library of Babel" is characteristic of Borges's short fiction in a number of ways. It is stylistically adventuresome, provocatively witty, and profoundly philosophical. It is also personal, but deceptively so, for it is not always easy to find Borges the man behind the coolly ironic facades employed by his narrators.

Perhaps style is the facet of Borges's short fiction that a reader is drawn to first. In the early part of the twentieth century writers began rejecting the label "tales" in favor of "short stories," implying a movement away from the romantic, supernatural, and melodramatic and toward the sort of realism now associated with people like James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, and Sherwood Anderson. A half century later Borges signaled another sea change in the short story by adopting the label "fiction" in place of "story." "The Library of Babel" shows why the fiction label is more appropriate. A story implies certain givens: a few richly drawn characters with whom we are concerned, a conflict, action rising toward a climax, and some sort of resolution of conflict. But where is the action in "The Library of Babel," rising or otherwise? What, exactly, is the conflict? One could not spend more than a short paragraph discussing any or all of the "characters" in the fiction. Rather than looking at "The Library of Babel" as a story, the reader will more profitably view it as a fictional essay with an introduction of subject matter (thesis), an exposition of ideas, and a conclusion—and it comes complete with footnotes!

Not all of Borges's fictions follow an essay format, but "The Library of Babel" and similar works show his willingness to forego any of the traditional assumptions about what makes a story a story in favor of whatever suits his purposes. It is this breaking of the stranglehold of the realistic short story that makes Borges such an important and influential figure.

The revolution was not just stylistic, of course. The vast majority of writers before Borges and his mentor Kafka had striven to capture in their fictions a mundane, quotidian reality. Borges showed that one could write about anything, real or imagined. Again, "The Library of Babel" is a marvelously entertaining example. The setting is no less than the universe, which here is made up of an infinite number of hexagonal galleries containing shelves of books and populated, of course, by librarians. The galleries are connected by narrow hallways down which the librarians roam in their quixotic and almost always failed quests to find certain bits of information or, more generally, the ultimate truths of the library universe. The term that best describes Borges in this and other fictions is "witty," but witty in the eighteenth-century sense of intellectually fanciful or ingenious.

Borges is rarely merely witty, however, and certainly not in "The Library of Babel." He, his narrator, and the librarians who haunt their carrels are concerned with the most fundamental questions: Where are we? Why are we here? What is here? How do we know what we know? As is always the case with Borges, by the end we are no more—indeed, far less—certain than we were at the beginning. The reason for the uncertainty is the nature of the library (universe). The vast majority of the books contain what appears to be gibberish, or at least languages unknown to the librarians. The occasional recognizable phrases—" Oh time thy pyramids "—are generally as enigmatic as life. The only thing certain about the exceedingly rare books—frequently fragments—written in a recognizable tongue is that somewhere in the universal library is another that contains the first's refutation. Where, then, is truth or certainty? Nowhere in this library.

Borges's stories are so fanciful and his narrators so coolly and distantly analytical that it is sometimes difficult to sense Borges the man. But he is there, a profoundly affecting presence for those who read sensitively. Perhaps the fact that he worked as a minor functionary in a library while writing the story—and later was director of the Argentine national library—can help the reader locate him. It is also interesting that Borges once observed that the most important event of his youth was his father's library. One might expect that an occurrence, a happening and not a thing, would have been the most important event. But the paradox is an important and painful irony for Borges. Throughout his writing are opposed the man of action and the man of contemplation, rarely to the latter's, and hence to Borges's, advantage. Throughout "The Library of Babel" one senses more than anything else the total futility of the librarians' pursuits. Their world is the world of the intellect, of language, of literature, and it is ultimately a loveless, meaningless chaos.

Near the end the narrator notes that over the years suicide among the librarians has grown more frequent. The reader finds little solace in the narrator's prediction that, although "the human species—the unique species—is about to be extinguished … the library will endure." And probably Borges did not either.

—Dennis Vannatta

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The Library of Babel (La Biblioteca de Babel) by Jorge Luis Borges, 1944

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